Why is peace of mind so elusive?
In any previous era, maybe it would have been easy to answer such a question. How can people feel satisfied when life is so brutal and short, or the threat of war too imminent, or disease and tragedy were ever present? These, however, are not the issues most of us are struggling with on a day to day basis — so what gives?
Attaining a sense of equilibrium today is like balancing a grand piano on the end of a short stick. You do have that moment where it balances perfectly, but it’s very short lived and a moment later inevitably it will fall to one side or the other. So too, as soon as you achieve a sense of balance in your life, boom, it falls. It’s as though it’s unavoidable.
Let me try and explain.
There is a documentary called “Supersize Me,” about a person who tried to live eating only fast food. The results were not pretty. The human body, like any machine, can only function with the right kind of input. It needs certain nutrients or things start to shut down.
The soul similarly needs fulfillment, and when we try to feed the soul unhealthy “snacks” the results are not how they appear on the packaging. Instead of finding peace, love and happiness, we end up with anger, depression and despondency.
Like fast food, just because we want it, doesn’t mean it will do us any good!
The following story appears in the classic 16th century book of Jewish ethics, “The Ways of the Righteous”:
A lustful man and a jealous man met a king. The king said to them, “One of you may make a request which I will fulfill, provided that I give twice as much of the same to your companion.”
The jealous man did not want to ask first, because he didn’t want his companion to receive twice as much. The lustful man did not want to ask first, because he wanted what belonged to both of them.
The lustful man finally pressed the jealous man to ask. The jealous man asked the king to pluck out one of his eyes, because then his companion would have both eyes plucked out.
As absurd as that story is, it is not an exaggeration of the effects of jealousy. Wanting things that others have is not only inane, because invariably you won’t get them; but even if you do, you are less than likely to find any form of balance or tranquility.
This week’s parsha tells the story of Korach, who was consumed with jealousy. He just could not bear that a relative was appointed to a higher leadership position than himself.
Ethics of the Fathers (4:21) says “Jealousy, desire and pride take a man out of the world.” This kind of jealousy does not leave room in your heart to want anything healthy, just like eating a meal of junk food leaves you with no desire to eat anything healthy afterwards. Even if you could, it won’t counter the damage already done.
Jealousy is a powerful motivator. But don’t waste it on the things that don’t bring you true satisfaction. Our Sages tells us that jealousy can be for the bad but also for the good. Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the Ramchal, explains that rather than eliminate jealousy, we can use it for things that really bring peace of mind.
If you only want something purely because it’s more than someone else’s, then it’s negative jealousy. It’s really based on a desire to deprive that person, because you would be just as happy with what you already have, if your neighbor didn’t have it at all.
However, if you want what your friend has, but want him to have it too, then you will find peace. This doesn’t happen with anything you can buy at Nordstrom or Best Buy — it's when you see another with more kindness or more patience than you and you want those traits, too.
If you are keeping score of accomplishments, don’t burn the scorecard; rather, use that drive to improve yourself rather than expending energy on coveting other people’s things and status.
You have no idea what a transformation you will have in your life when you keep track of all the goodness, kindness, and wisdom you have achieved, as opposed to looking at the amount of dollars, designer clothing, and sports cars in the driveway.
Imagine for a moment a world where the most loving and wise people were sought after more than the people making movies and buying gigantic yachts. If you can imagine such a world, you can live in such a world.
By Rabbi Stephen Baars
Originally from London, Rabbi Stephen Baars resides in Rockville, Maryland, and serves as executive director of Aish Seminars. He did nine years of post-graduate studies at the Aish HaTorah Rabbinical College in Jerusalem, and has been an educator and marriage counselor for the past 25 years. Rabbi Baars and his wife, Ruth, are blessed with seven children. Learn more about Rabbi Baars at www.getbliss.com and www.core9.live.